A Halloween scare, 'Tom the Devil' and the Pitchcap

Foretelling the Future
In all Celtic countries Hallowe’en night, when the mysterious, unknown underworld opened up, was a time to tell the future.  Echoes of  earlier magical observances can be seen in attempts at prediction which, long ago, were taken very seriously indeed.  Such customs may well have been used at one time as rites to avert evil or to secure the benefits they now pretend to forecast. 


  Daithi, High King of Ireland in the fifth century, happening to be at the Druids Hill (Cnoc-an-Druad) in the county of Sligo one Hallowe’en, ordered his Druid to forecast the future for him that day till the next Hallowe’en should come round.  The Druid passed the night on the top of the hill, and it is said that, 'the next morning made a prediction to the king that came true.’

Until recently young people invoked the powers to see who they were going to marry. Clareman Brian Merriman in his poem, ‘Cuirt an Mheadhon Oidche’ written in 1780, described the methods used by one of his female characters to see into the future:

‘Every old rhyme, pishrogue and rune,
Crescent, full moon and harvest moon
Whit and All Souls and the first of May.
I’ve nothing to show for all they say
Every night as I went to bed
I’d a stocking of apples under my head
I fasted three canonical hours
To try and come round the Heavenly powers’

Attempting to discover the suitor's voice in a lime kiln was one of the most prevalent pastimes at this time of year and carried on into the last half of the 20th century.  Many women can still recall unusual experiences they had while doing this as young girls.  Some, who left the needles in the wool, deciphered an answer from the echo made as the wool and needles clattered down the stony sides of the kiln. 

A woman of Maugherow told me that, ‘There was a lime kiln down at Ballinful quarry and one down at the pump at Boyle's.  There was a hole at the bottom of the kiln where you could climb in, that’s where they used to light the fire and take out the lime long ago.  This young lad found out that the girls were going down this night and didn’t he climb in at the bottom and wait for them.  When they came they threw the wool down and shouted  “Who am I going to marry?”  “Tom the Divil” the voice boomed back up the kiln at them.  It frightened the life in them and  I’m telling ye, that finished the lime kilns for that night.’


Tom the Devil and Pitchcapping
Who was this 'Tom the Divil' used to frighten the life out of young girls in Co. Sligo? Was there really ever such an individual?

I thought not, in fact I didn't think about it at all. Until recently I believed it was just another one of those abstract expressions that meant a wicked person. Lately I read Nicholas Furlong's 'Fr. John Murphy of Boolavogue' on the life of Fr. Murphy of 1798 fame and the coin dropped, I came across the original Tom the Devil!

In 18th century Ireland the grossest outrages were rife, including methods of torture called 'half-hanging', 'picketing" and 'pitch-capping',. "Half-hanging" consisted in repeatedly stringing up the victim, cutting him down, and allowing him to struggle back to life again. 'Picketing' meant placing the bare soles of the tortured man on pegs driven into the ground, with their pointed ends uppermost. His whole weight was thus supported on a most sensitive part causing exquisite pain. In his book Furlong explains pitchcapping:

'Yeomen made wide use of a system of torture called pitchcapping, and in Wexford the North Cork Militia took the opportunity to judge its effectiveness in large-scale application. They had in their ranks a non commisioned officer who was their torture expert. He was a sergeant, Thomas Honam, known in Wexford as 'Tom the Devil', the man who perfected the pitchcap torture.

The pitchcap took the shape of a conical cap like a clown's. It was made of the nearest materials to hand, whether those were hard brown paper or stiff linen. Into this cone, boiling pitch was poured and the receptacle was then upturned and pressed down on the prisoner's head. The boiling liquid ran down the face and into the eyes and mouth. Sometimes the prisoner was released with his arms still tied behind his back. Refinements to the torture
included unbinding the victim's feet to allow the spectacle of them running about in agony and in some cases, deliberately smashing their own heads in an attempt to end the torment. His convulsive run, together with the efforts to loosen the torment, made spectacular sport for the militia. On reaching a wall many victims severely injured themselvs dashing their heads against it. The victim was on occasion held and when the pitch had cooled the militiamen wrenched the pitchcap off. When militiaman or victim pulled the pitchcap off it was accompanied by the hair and most of the scalp. Suspects whose hair was long had their hair cropped by shears which the North Corks maintained for the purpose. Little finesse was employed in that operation and ears were frequently sheared off. Another variation involved adding turpentine or gunpowder to the pitchcap when cooled and then setting it alight.

'Tom the Devil' was inventive. Sometimes he practised applying moistened gunpowder to the close-cropped scalp and then he set the mix on fire. It would in many cases have been kinder if he had killed the 'croppies' outright but that was not his intention. It certainly would have been more politic. Almost up to the 1860s and recounted within living memory was the spectacle in country chapels of men self-consciously huddled at the back of the chapel, out of the public gaze, not bare-headed, but with knotted white handkerchiefs covering their heads. They were pitchcapped croppies who had survived.'

Yeomen: Yeoman Cavalry, locally based military units in 18th century Ireland raised by English colonists and loyalists and drawn from the 'landed gentry' and their followers.

Recommended reading: Fr. John Murphy of Boolavogue 1753 - 1798
For a Sligo incident of 1798 go HERE
See also: www.nicholasfurlong.com








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